I was asked to offer a reflection at my 35th Harvard College reunion for our fellow classmates who have died. We have lost 57 members of the Class of 1983, many of whom were my friends, and we held a reunion service for them, as we do every five years at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
When I was a philosophy student here I would walk in and out of Emerson Hall several times a week, and I’d look up at the inscription at the top of the building which says, “What is man that thou art mindful of him,” and I’d ponder its meaning. It comes from the Bible… from Psalm 8, which asks us to wonder what it means to be a human being. What makes us so important that God thinks about us. What makes us — as the Psalmist says in the next line — little less than a God.
St. Augustine, in The Confessions tries to answer those questions. He writes about memory, and how memory helps define us as being humans and makes us a little less than a God. The whole book of The Confessions is about Augustine remembering… remembering his life, his failures, his struggles, the people he loved. And in one of the most poignant, moving parts of that book, remembering his beloved mother Monica.
God is mindful of us because we can be mindful of God and because we can be mindful of each other. We can hold each other in our memory… those of us who are here and those of us who have passed on.
Remembering the dead spans cultures and religions. I like to walk around Lake Quannapowit in Wakefield, just about 15 miles north of here, near where I live. There’s a large Jewish cemetery along the lake, and as I walk by I see all those rocks that have been placed on the gravestones of people to show that someone was there… that someone was there to remember. In Mexico on el Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — whole families spend time at the graves of their loved ones. In certain parts of China, they celebrate something called “Tomb Sweeping Day,” when people remember their ancestors by cleaning their grave sites.
If you think of it, here in Harvard Yard, memory is all around us. We are surrounded by buildings that prompt us to remember the dead. We are in Memorial Church, which recalls those who died in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam… Across the way is Memorial Hall built to remember the Union dead of the Civil War. Throughout the Yard are buildings that memorialize people who gave their time, talent and treasure to the University. Pennypacker, Stoughton, Wigglesworth, Grays, Hollis… the list goes on. We probably couldn’t appreciate it as Freshmen living here, so young… so untouched by death… so far away from our own mortality … but in many ways, Harvard Yard is one big memorial to the those who have died.
Think about Harry Elkins Widener. For me, the most moving memorial here is Widener Library, a way for Eleanor Elkins Widener to console herself at the death of her son Harry on the Titanic. A way for her to remember.
I remember Jeff Goldsby. And maybe some of you do as well. I remember his big personality — a surfer from Newport Beach, California who loved to laugh and have fun. I remember how he would travel to any Grateful Dead concert within a 300-mile radius of Cambridge. I remember him teaching me how to surf in the men’s room of Weld North using a big piece of cardboard. Jeff loved to look out from his window on the third floor of Weld Hall and to check out what was going on in the Yard. And I remember how one day as I was walking up the steps of Widener Library on my way to study in the stacks, I heard him, in his booming voice calling out to me loud enough to stop several groups of tourists in their tracks and make them look up at him, “Hey O’Shie” — that was my nickname — “Hey O’Shie, say hello to Harry for me.” Jeff, who I remember now wanted me to remember him to Harry Elkins Widener.
Memories of those who have passed are always connected to love and, through love, to forgiveness. Have you ever noticed how well we speak of the dead? We always tend to remember and tell the stories that are joyful… happy… funny. Whatever faults they had tend to recede from our memory. And I think this is another way in which we are a little less than a God — as the Psalmist says — this capacity to express forgiveness and love in the memory we have of others. For those who are basically good people, we do forget, we do forgive those small slights… those small transgressions…. those small trespasses against us.
All of us here are on a pilgrimage through life together. One of the great things that I love about reunions is that it gives us a moment to stop and connect with each other while we are on this pilgrimage… to connect not only with our friends, but to get to know people that we might never have met during college and to deepen relationships with those we barely knew. To tell stories. To draw on old memories and build new ones. And to remember our friends who have passed on.
Because memory is about relationships. Sure, we can remember places and things but it’s really the people in our lives who impress the deepest memories upon us. And these memories are what connect us. One of the prayers at a Catholic wake service has a line that goes like this: “My brothers and sisters, we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection that knit us together throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” Connections, relationships, the bonds of love that we build. So many things can pass from us, but these remain.
In my faith tradition, we believe we will all see each other again on the other side if we have lived a good, faithful life. That the reunions won’t end…. And that at our 70th or 80th or 90th or 100th reunion, we will all be together again. Until then, lets continue to hold in our hearts and minds our friends who have gone on before us. Let’s cherish each other. And let’s always remember.